Archive for April, 2014

Movie Review: “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the Unites States” – posted 4/26/2014

April 26, 2014 1 comment

Before I viewed this 10 hour documentary, I wondered what it would be like. Having seen many of Stone’s movies (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon and W. come immediately to mind) I did not know if he would veer off into weird conspiratorialism.

I still remember the hazy, surreal scenes from JFK when it appeared like he was implicating LBJ in JFK’s assassination. While Americans seem fascinated by conspiracy theories, that was too strange and irrational. LBJ has enough bad karma without piling on JFK’s assassination.

I have to report that Stone plays it straight in this film. It is pretty conventional stylistically although the film has a progressive take on recent American history. To his credit, Stone does cover much history you never see in the mainstream media. The movie starts with World War II and in 10 hourly episodes it takes us up to Obama.

I liked the film and Stone’s perspective. In his retelling, he particularly exposes the history of U.S. imperialism and our many interventions around the world. His focus is much more on foreign than domestic policy. He also tells the story by focusing on big name leaders, especially Presidents.

It is a massive undertaking to explore American history for such an extended period and such a series necessitates choices. Although I have seen Stone’s movie compared to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, what Stone attempts is quite different. He covers history from the top down. This series is not focused on people’s movements.

He does make clever use of Hollywood films to illustrate points. I loved his scenes from Dr. Strangelove, still probably the greatest comedy ever. Peter Sellers and George C. Scott were phenomenal in that movie.

Stone highlights some critical moments where history turned. I will mention a couple such moments where I learned things from the movie I never heard about before. The first of these moments occurred in 1944.

Henry Wallace, clearly a hero to Stone, was a candidate for Vice-President. He was the sitting Vice-President, elected in 1940 along with FDR. Stone tells what happened at the Democratic Convention held in Chicago in 1944. (When it comes to Democratic Conventions in Chicago, I always think of 1968). I knew nothing about the 1944 convention.

In what was a watershed moment, Wallace came extremely close to being the vice-presidential nominee. Congressman Claude Pepper was going to nominate Wallace on the convention floor. The hall was packed with Wallace supporters and the prevailing wisdom was that Wallace would be the nominee and the vote would be that night. He had strong support from labor and the progressive wing of the Democrats although he was widely disliked in the south and also by more conservative elements in the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party bosses who did not want Wallace played dirty. They abruptly adjourned the convention that night when the floor was packed with Wallace supporters. They did it in spite of a voice vote that did not support adjournment. Stone says they wanted time to unite behind an anti-Wallace candidate. Congressman Pepper was a few feet from the microphone and his desired goal to put Wallace’s name into nomination. He never made it to the mic.

The extra time allowed by the adjournment gave the party bosses time to mobilize behind the candidacy of Harry Truman. The momentum for Wallace faded. After several ballots, support shifted to Truman who ended up getting the nomination, largely behind the party bosses organizing. Probably not helping things for Wallace was FDR’s equivocal support for his candidacy.

FDR died in 1945 and Truman ascended to the presidency. If Wallace had been the nominee rather than Truman, Wallace would have become president when FDR died.

Stone gets us to ponder this “what if” moment in history. Could the Cold War have been avoided? How about the nuclear arms race? And what about Sen. Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare?

Wallace espoused very different views than Truman. He did not have Truman’s hostility toward the Russians. He favored peaceful co-existence of the two social systems. Wallace had frequently been accused of being a communist. It is impossible to know but maybe things would have played out differently. Wallace was not as intent as Truman on using the nuclear monopoly to gain political advantage. Stone clearly thinks we might have avoided a very dark period if we had a leadership that was less bellicose.

In 1946, Truman fired Wallace from his position as Secretary of Commerce. FDR had appointed Wallace to that post after Wallace lost the vice-presidential nomination. Wallace had been speaking out questioning Truman’s foreign policy. He presciently said that the Truman Doctrine would mark the beginning of a century of fear.

Later Wallace ran for President in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket. Wallace ran on a platform advocating friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, an end to colonialism, an end to segregation, full voting rights for African Americans and universal health insurance. During the campaign he was redbaited. Wallace had dabbled in the occult and a series of letters he had written became public. Wallace’s eccentric religious beliefs and the letters became a big distraction. Both major party candidates, Truman and Dewey, decimated Wallace in the 1948 election. Wallace got zero electoral votes and 2.4% of the popular vote.

A second critical moment that Stone highlights was an incident during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I had never heard the story he told. It was an extremely scary time. I remember going to school and wondering if I would be coming home that night. I do not think there was any time when the world was so close to a nuclear war.

During the crisis, an American submarine, the USS Beale, dropped depth charges on the B-59, a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine. The Soviet sub had been trying to hide. Other U.S. destroyers also participated in dropping depth charges. The destroyers meant the depth charges as warning shots but the B-59 thought it was under attack. The destroyers wanted the Soviet sub to surface for identification.

The B-59 sub had not had any contact with Moscow for a number of days.The sub had been too deep to monitor radio traffic since it had been in hiding mode.Those on board did not know if war had broken out. Conditions on the B-59 had been terrible. It had been sweltering hot on the sub over 104 degrees F. Men were fainting from the heat.

The captain of the Soviet sub, Valentin Savitsky wanted to launch a 10 kiloton nuclear torpedo because he believed war might already have broken out. The target was the USS Randolf, a giant aircraft carrier leading the American taskforce. There were three officers on board the B-59. Along with Savitsky were the political officer Ivan Maslennikov and the second in command Vasili Arkhipov. The three were authorized to launch the torpedo if they had lost touch with the Soviet chain of command and they unanimously agreed to the launch. Savitsky initiated the nuclear weapons firing protocol. Maslennikov said “yes” to fire the torpedo. Arkhipov said “no”. Since they lacked unanimity, they did not fire. Under tremendous pressure, Arkhipov held out. Rather than launching the nuclear torpedo, the B-59 surfaced. They were not sure if surfacing meant their death.

As Stone makes clear, Vasili Arkhipov, a total unknown to this day, saved the world from the consequences of a nuclear launch. Arkhipov did not come home to a hero’s welcome. The Russian military saw his action as a surrender. When you step back from the story, it is remarkable that we are all not more aware of what happened. An unknown and unheralded nobody saved the entire world from what would no doubt have been utterly catastrophic harm.

The DVD has some bonus material including a wide-ranging taped conversation between Tariq Ali and Stone that is enjoyable. Stone likes to be a bad boy. He takes up any number of topics that have evaded wide discussion like the role of U.S. business interests including Ford Motor Co., IBM and banks who did business with the Nazis before and during the war. He notes the role of the CIA in handing over the names of suspected Indonesian Communist Party members to the Indonesian military in 1965 when the military crackdown turned into a mass murder. Stone says 1,000,000 Indonesian communists died in that atrocity.

It can be dense and it is long but students of history will get something out of it. It is nice to see a documentary on U.S. history that steps outside conventional wisdom.

Desean Jackson, the Eagles and Racism – posted 4/13/2014

April 13, 2014 1 comment

As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, it was painful to watch the Eagles cut Desean Jackson. Not much to feel good about there. Your team loses an extremely talented wide receiver and they get nada. Plus they take a $6,000,000 salary cap hit.

Jackson is a special player. It is not just the fact that he had 82 catches last season. Eagles’ fans will always remember that punt return against the Giants at the end of the game in 2010. I was watching at a sports bar in Anchorage Alaska that was full of Giants fans. I remember all the Giants fans filing silently out of the bar after that punt return. Earlier in the game they had been raucous. It was an exhilarating moment to be an Eagles fan.

Jackson’s speed, his swagger, his big play ability and his sheer talent put him in a unique category. The Eagles have not had players like that. I am certainly not surprised the Redskins signed him. I expect there are some Eagles players who wonder about this move as well. Witness Lesean McCoy in the Philly paper today.

After the Eagles cut him, I was surprised by much of the media speculation. Just to recap: there was the story about his gang ties. Then there was the Richard Sherman piece in Sports Illustrated that contrasted the fact the Eagles re-signed Riley Cooper, infamous for his racist video, with their handling of Jackson. Some speculated that the Eagles timed the cut to coincide with the gang story. The implication was the Eagles slimed Jackson on the way out to make this contentious move easier for the fan base to swallow. Eagles’ management knew it would be unpopular.

Dave Zirin, a sports columnist I generally admire, chimed in with his own defense of Richard Sherman and Jackson.

There were also other stories about how Desean has been lost since his father Bill died of pancreatic cancer in May 2009. That loss was, by all accounts, devastating to Desean. Bill Jackson had been a sports coach as well as a critical positive influence. Michael Vick and Jason Avant had been two players on the Eagles who had mentored Jackson and they are now gone.

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has announced they are going to investigate how the Eagles released Jackson in light of the strange coincidence of the story coming out right before his release.The investigation will look at whether the Eagles smeared Jackson.

In his piece, Richard Sherman spent time talking about how he and Desean grew up together in Los Angeles, played sports, and hung with people from their neighborhood, some of whom went to jail or were accused of crimes. He thought it was unfair Desean was being judged by the company he kept.

I like Richard Sherman and I admire his bravado and I like to hear what he has to say. He might be the best corner on the planet. Still, i think his piece on Jackson and most of the media speculation are way off. I think, in this instance, accusations of racism against Chip Kelly or the Eagles are rubbish.

When the Eagles cut Jackson, they said nothing except that they were parting ways. As a new coach, developing a new system, Kelly has a right to decide who he wants on the team and who he thinks gives him the best chance to win.

Kelly did not want Jackson. Kelly is a smart guy and he knew what he had in Jackson. Still he did not want him. My best guess is that Jackson was a royal pain and Kelly was tired of it. Joseph Santoliquito of CBS Sports wrote that Jackson was “blatantly insubordinate” to Kelly and cursed him out several times in front of the team. Jackson had a history of missing team meetings.

Jason Whitlock of ESPN wrote that Jackson was “a massive headache for a coaching staff”. Many wide receivers are divas and Jackson was the latest Philadelphia incarnation. He is following in the T.O. tradition.

The story said, in part:

“…sources close to Jackson and within the Eagles organization say, it originally was Jackson’s off-field behavior that concerned the front office. A bad attitude, an inconsistent work ethic, missed meetings and a lack of chemistry with head coach Chip Kelly were the original reasons for his fall from grace.”

Whitlock argues that the Eagles had legitimate reasons for cutting Jackson. His selfishness, his unreliability and his difficulty committing to a team concept were likely factors. Whitlock wrote that Jackson was uninterested in practicing hard. He also mentioned Jackson coasting through an entire season because he did not want to risk injury in a contract year.

For those who were watching, there was that sideline incident with the Eagles wide receiver coach. The Eagles have a very young team and coaches may have worried about Jackson influencing other players especially at a time the coach has made dramatic changes and is trying to get all players to buy into his system.

Based on the evidence, I agree with Whitlock that it is irresponsible to paint the Eagles as racist in their dealings with Jackson. It did not work out and the Eagles decided to move on.

Raising the spectre of racism on this set of facts trivializes the issue. Racism remains an urgent problem in the United States. We still have our ghettos in every major city. In spite of making huge strides, African-Americans are discriminated against in employment, housing, education and health care. Racism is institutionalized and we have far to go as a society in addressing it.

When I was in Alaska, I read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”. That book focused on the mass incarceration of young black men. I think the book is the best introduction to how racism is currently functioning in the United States. It deserves far more attention than it has received.

Desean Jackson is a multi-millionaire. His deal with the Redskins gives him $16 million guaranteed. I am not feeling sorry for him. If we are going to talk about racism, how about focus on the millions of minority people who are living in poverty in no limelight. Where are the advocates for them? Our system continues to fail poor people whether they are black, Latino, other minority or white. That is a class issue as well as a race issue.

I did want to say one other thing about Riley Cooper since he was injected into the Jackson story. What Riley Cooper said was moronic and racist. Hopefully he has learned from that hugely embarrassing experience. We need to allow room for people who say racist stuff to learn from the error of their ways.

I honestly do not know what Cooper has learned but maybe he did learn that racism is evil. Maybe he will grow from that awful experience and become a better person. I do not like the holier than thou, self-righteousness of people who act like they have never said stupid things.

After taking an Eagles team that was 4-12 and turning it around in one year, I give credit to Chip Kelly and I remain optimistic that he has a vision and knows exactly what he is doing. Time will tell.

Movie Review: “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” – posted 4/6/2014

April 6, 2014 3 comments

I suppose it is not exactly news to review a movie that came out 12 years ago. Still, I wanted to write about “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” and the Funk Brothers who are featured. My friend Jim told me about the movie and passed it along.

I have always loved soul music so it was not too hard to get me to watch.

There is a scene early in the movie that pretty much says it all. The interviewer (this is a documentary) asks a number of young customers in a record store if they know about Motown music. To a person, everyone said “yes”. When asked about Motown artists, the names that came up were Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops and the Supremes.

The interviewer then asked the same customers if they knew who played the music for the Motown vocalists. Nobody knew. When asked if they had heard of the Funk Brothers, no one knew who they were.

I have to say I was another one of the ignorant. I had never heard of the Funk Brothers even though they figured in a long string of monster Motown hits. They played the music for almost all the major Motown acts. Martha Reeves said that without the Funk Brothers there would have been no Motown.

Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown label, started assembling musicians in late 1958. They played in the basement Hitsville U.S.A studio known as the Snakepit. The musicians played around Detroit and mostly had background in jazz. Jack Ashford, one of the Funk Brothers, said they wanted to be like Miles Davis. They used to hang and jam at the Chit Chat club as well as other local venues. I will name some of the names. The movie does a good job of telling us interesting information about many of the musicians.

James Jamerson, the bass player, was prominently featured in the movie. He was a highly skilled artist and could play with one finger which was famously called the Hook. He was mostly uncredited (Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971) yet he is now recognized as one of the most influential bass players ever.

His story was tragic. When Motown moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in 1972, Jamerson and the other Funk Brothers were mostly left behind. They had been rooted in Detroit and its music scene. While some of the artists tried to relocate west, that apparently did not work out.

Jamerson struggled with alcoholism. His daughter poignantly described how he took pride in caring for those around him and providing for his family. His daughter said he felt like less than a man because he was not able to be a provider like he had been in the earlier part of his career.

At a live 1983 show commemorating the 25th anniversary of Motown, Jamerson had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony. It was never explained why Motown treated Jamerson so shabbily. It sounded like the music business as usual with the artist getting screwed while the label took all the cash. Jamerson died in August 1983, 2 months after that show where he was ignominiously relegated to a balcony seat. In 2000, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jamerson.

Then there was Benny Benjamin, the drummer for the Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy insisted Benjamin and Jamerson both be included in recording sessions. Benjamin died very young in 1969 at age 43. He had drug issues and he disappeared and turned up dead.

On keyboards, there was Earl Van Dyke. His style was described as guerilla piano. Stevie Wonder described him as the musical foundation of the Funk Brothers. Stevie used to hang out and play with the band.

I feel like I should mention the other musicians like Joe Hunter, Jack Ashford, Eddie Willis, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Bob Babbitt and Eddie “Bongo” Brown, among others, because none got the recognition, reward, and fame they deserved.

Toward the end of the movie, the list of songs in which the Funk Brothers played is presented. It is nothing short of staggering and it did make me think more about how these guys could have done so much without any recognition. The movie politely sidestepped this question. I assume because it did not want to detract attention from the artists.

On the history of rock website, it says that for 14 years the Funk Brothers were on call 7 days a week, day and night. Usually sessions ran for 3 hours but things often went longer. The band had to do tunes in one take. Under union rules, they were not supposed to cut more than 4 songs but as the house band, the union was not around. The history of rock website says they would be paid $10 a song but not until everything was all right. When you think about the popularity of Motown hits, $10 a song is ridiculous. It did make me wonder how much money Motown records made and where the money went. That was not clarified.

Since the movie, things were a little bit rectified at least on the recognition front. In 2004, The Funk Brothers received a Grammy award for lifetime achievement and in 2013 they got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unfortunately, after the movie, conflicts developed among the remaining band members. They split into two camps and performed separately.

One of the most enjoyable features of the movie are the live performances by artists playing with the Funk Brothers, circa 2002. Joan Osborne does a killer version of the old Jimmy Ruffin tune “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”. I also liked her version of “Heat Wave”.

Ben Harper sings great versions of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as well as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.

I liked Bootsy Collins singing “Cool Jerk” too.

If you are a Motown fan, pick up the DVD or check it on netflix. I am sure it must be there. The music alone makes it worth it. If you want to know where the term “groovemaster” came from, it is probably these guys.