There's a confrontation in the fascinating new documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" that sums up why the most sardonic, most earnest and most intelligent of the Beatles can still drive people nuts, 26 years after his death. It's the early '70s, probably 1972, a year that marked a turning point in Lennon's life and, if you ask me, in American history. Sitting alongside his wife, Yoko Ono, Lennon is locked in heated conversation with Gloria Emerson, then a famous (some would say infamous) foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
The scene is brief but electric. (The same clip reportedly appears in the 1988 film "Imagine: John Lennon," which I haven't seen since its release.) There's none of the star-fucking or ego-fellation that today characterizes celebrity interviews. Emerson and Lennon are both angry, and getting angrier. She finds the Lennon-Ono publicity stunts and peacenik ballads naive and simplistic, and she's letting him know that. Eyes boring into her, Lennon says he doesn't care about that, that his only goal is to end the Vietnam War and save lives. "You can't possibly believe that you've saved a single life!" Emerson says in her exaggerated upper-crust drawl. "Dear boy, you're living in a dream world." Lennon flicks her away like an insect, pointing out that "Give Peace a Chance" had become both a pop hit and the unofficial anthem of the antiwar movement.
As most viewers probably will, I instinctively sided with the working-class Liverpudlian rock star against the Upper East Side WASP lady with the ludicrous accent. But the scene stuck with me and wouldn't go away, and eventually I came to grips with it. First I realized that Lennon and Emerson were engaged in an important cultural debate, and neither of them was exactly wrong. Viewed in hindsight, Lennon and Ono's political theater of the early '70s had a Zen-meets-Dada brilliance and clarity that thrilled and engaged an entire generation. It may well have helped shorten the war and save lives. But Emerson isn't entirely the creep she at first seems to be; she saw their work leading toward an intellectual and political cul-de-sac, and she was right.
After that I became grief-stricken: Pop culture and journalism in our own time have been so thoroughly drained of content, and genuine confrontation, that nothing close to this could happen today. It's nice, I guess, that Bono is working with Paul Wolfowitz on Africa's debt crisis, and that Eminem wants young people to vote. But you're not going to see them arguing with a prominent journalist in front of the news cameras, and no prominent journalist (Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert aside) would even dare.
If Lennon was a dangerous figure to the pro-war American establishment of the early '70s -- and he clearly was -- so was Emerson. Her scathing, mournful reporting from Vietnam, which repeatedly lambasted the idiocy and incompetence of military planners and commanders, did a great deal to cement middle-class opposition to the war (and won her newspaper the lasting enmity of the right wing). Emerson's magnum opus was the 1976 book "Winners & Losers," the best and perhaps only journalistic attempt to capture the war's effects on both Americans and Vietnamese. Like Lennon, she was a spiny and difficult character, and we could use more like both of them. She lived much longer than Lennon, but also departed under painful circumstances. Gloria Emerson committed suicide in August 2004, in her New York apartment, at age 75.
David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's documentary dredges up the sordid and largely forgotten tale of the right-wing attempt -- spearheaded by Strom Thurmond and J. Edgar Hoover, no less -- to get Lennon deported as an "undesirable alien." The reasons are not mysterious and at this late date the history is not in dispute. After the breakup of the Beatles, Lennon and Ono moved to New York in 1971, where they became increasingly visible figures on the antiwar left -- and almost immediately targets of the FBI.
Even some of the couple's friends thought that John and Yoko might be imagining that their phones were tapped, or that they were being followed around the city by men in suits. Now that Lennon's voluminous FBI file has been opened, it looks like it was all true. History will have to judge whether Richard Nixon's administration was more paranoid and criminal-minded than the current one, but Nixon's men ordered surveillance of many perceived political enemies, and more extreme measures were contemplated, at the very least. (It seems pretty clear that Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by Chicago police and FBI agents in December 1969, but exactly who gave the orders remains a mystery.)
Near the end of 1971, Lennon and Ono headlined a benefit concert in Ann Arbor, Mich., for imprisoned White Panther leader and marijuana activist John Sinclair. The concert made national news (and Sinclair was set free by the Michigan Supreme Court three days later). This concert and similar events drew Lennon and Ono close to several prominent activists, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale. They began to discuss a concert and lecture tour that would follow Richard Nixon around the country during his reelection campaign, galvanizing antiwar sentiment and, perhaps, support for Nixon's Democratic opponent, George McGovern.
That's where Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator and old-time segregationist (then a mere lad of 69), came in. He wrote to the Nixon White House, suggesting that Lennon's career as an antiwar celebrity spokesman could be derailed by revoking his temporary visa and getting him deported to England. As much as all the eloquent lefty talking heads in the film -- from Gore Vidal to Noam Chomsky to Tariq Ali to Geraldo Rivera (yes! a secret pinko, and much less of an idiot than you think!) -- try to dance around the issue, this worked like a charm.
Lennon was never deported, but his struggles with the immigration authorities lasted for three years, long past the end of the Vietnam War and Nixon's resignation. The anti-Nixon barnstorming tour of 1972 never happened. (We should not delude ourselves into imagining that it would have produced a vastly different result that November.) Lennon gradually fell away from active politics and even from music, hardly recording or performing at all between 1975 and 1980.
Leaf and Scheinfeld are working with Yoko Ono's cooperation; she appears in several interview segments and gave clearances for numerous Lennon songs, including unreleased versions of "Attica State" and "How Do You Sleep." This creates the same problem I observed in Ric Burns' new Andy Warhol documentary, made in close collaboration with the Warhol estate. On the one hand, this level of access is invaluable to any researcher. On the other, it means that part of watching the film involves reading between the lines (a mixed metaphor, but you get it).
Emerson was wrong to dismiss Lennon and Ono as naive peaceniks. Their exploitation of their own massive celebrity from 1969 to 1971, combining blunt political-philosophical challenge -- "War Is Over (If You Want It)" -- with conceptual art happenings, was anything but simplistic. Conducting press conferences from inside a large cloth sack (to advocate "Bagism"), or spending an entire week in bed in mock-serious political resistance, are acts of maddening, enlightened idiocy, worthy of a Dostoevski hero, or Marcel Duchamp, or Andy Kaufman.
As Lennon became more closely involved with the semi-official leaders of the antiwar movement, though, his work became more literal-minded, less clownish and adventuresome and interesting. Does anyone today really want to listen to the song "John Sinclair"? (Not to mention "Woman Is the Nigger of the World.") In exploring a little-known story of political persecution, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" also sheds some unexpected light on the uneven and still undigested career of one of the most paradoxical artists pop culture has yet produced.
"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" opens Sept. 15 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.
"Al Franken: God Spoke": Entertainers go political, new-school version
Al Franken is no John Lennon, and wouldn't claim to be. Nonetheless, there are intriguing contrasts between Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus' vérité-style film, which follows Franken through the 2004 election and beyond, and "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." Haughty intellectual types like Gloria Emerson are nowhere to be seen; instead, Franken goes toe-to-toe with fellow radio host Sean Hannity, dukes it out with Ann Coulter on a panel discussion and performs his legendary Henry Kissinger impression -- for Henry Kissinger. (Sadly, the Coulter sequence has been removed from the completed film for legal reasons.)
I wrote about "Al Franken: God Spoke" after seeing it at the SXSW Film Festival last spring, and recently interviewed Franken for a Salon podcast. So let's just say that you probably know already whether you'd like to see this movie or not. Revisiting the up-and-down (and down, and down) emotions of the '04 election was tough for me, as was reflecting that all that angst and overconfidence was expended on behalf of the blow-dried, windsurfing nonentity known as John Kerry. But fans of Franken as a comedian and/or as an Air America radio host, will find plenty to enjoy.
For me, Franken is funniest at his least guarded and his most incorrect, and as he inches toward becoming a politician himself, we get less and less of that. Maybe I'm a closet right-winger, but Franken's best moment in "God Spoke" comes in his Dick Cheney impression, when he goes beyond telling Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to go fuck himself and directs various street-level crudities at Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton.
Based on my conversation with Franken two weeks ago, I'd be very surprised if he didn't end up running against Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in 2008. Franken has moved his family and his radio show to the Twin Cities. He's made no formal announcement, and won't make one until after this fall's midterm elections. As he puts it, "I've done all the things that I should be doing if I were running. Sometimes I feel like I am running." He says that family considerations might still lead him to back away from the race -- being a senator "might be a great job," he says, "but not necessarily a great life" -- but he sure sounds like a candidate.
Franken says he's prepared for Republicans to scour his performing career looking for dirt, and that his college roommates are free to tell any stories about him they can remember. He says he's got nothing to hide from his years as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" (news flash: They did drugs!). "I'm proud of the two substance-abuse films I've written," he tells me in a gravelly voice. And those would be, Al? "'When a Man Loves a Woman' and 'Stuart Saves His Family,'" he says.
When I mention a funny line in his film, he corrects my misunderstanding. When I wrote about "God Spoke" originally, I described Franken meeting with a group of Minnesota legislators and quipping that he'd be "the only New York Jew in the race." In fact, as Franken reminds me, Coleman is also Jewish, and also from New York. The full joke goes: "I'd be the only New York Jew in the race -- who was born in Minnesota."
"Al Franken: God Spoke" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York. National release begins Sept. 29.
"Aurora Borealis": Low-fidelity slacker romance, lightly reheated
There's nothing original about James Burke's appealing coming-of-age film "Aurora Borealis," but this Nick Hornby-esque fable of a guy trying to outgrow his extended adolescence, with the help of a really cute girl, will win you over on its own terms if you give it half a chance. Joshua Jackson performs a rueful, lost-boy turn as Duncan, a mid-20s loser who's just hanging around his hometown of Minneapolis, playing hockey with the buddies he's known since middle school and waiting for not much to happen.
But the real star here is Juliette Lewis, who takes the potentially canned role of the Girl Who Changes Your Life and renders it complicated and delightful. She plays Kate, a home healthcare aide for Duncan's crusty but fast-fading grandfather (Donald Sutherland), neither as saint nor vamp but as a vivacious, foulmouthed, sexy but oddly masculine young woman, likable but not above a certain cruelty. I can't explain why Lewis never became a major movie star, but if this wonderful performance is anything to go by, I suspect she's just too funny and too smart for the racket.
Burke's direction is smooth and competent without ever rocking your world, and Brent Boyd's screenplay is lively and professional without ever leaping out of its foreordained channels. The cast is uniformly terrific, from Sutherland and Louise Fletcher as Duncan's grandparents (his father is dead, a plot point that never adds up to much) to Steven Pasquale as his philandering asshole brother and a large and funny cast of supporting players. Duncan spends a lot of time just hanging out -- watching the Vikings game with his buds, or playing poker with the old guys in his grandparents' building -- and few films have the courage to capture that activity in all its empty glory.
Burke and Boyd take some whacks at social relevance; Sutherland's character has worsening dementia, maybe Alzheimer's, and wants Duncan to help him end it all. (Asked, during a neurological exam, to name the president, Grandpa replies: "That dickweed in the suit. I didn't vote for him!") Mostly, they're better off letting Lewis command the screen while the romantic-comedy plot runs through its misunderstandings and minor tragedies. She makes "Aurora Borealis" into a funnier, richer, more powerful film than it has any reason to be. For Kate, pretty much any dude would turn off the Vikings game and get off his ass.
"Aurora Borealis" opens Sept. 15 in New York; Sept. 22 in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Oct. 6 in Boston; Oct. 20 in Detroit and St. Louis; and Nov. 12 in Honolulu, with more cities to follow.
"Haven": Orlando Bloom as a wounded local Romeo -- who pays no taxes!
"Haven" is the sort of deliberately confusing film that uses the same footage over and over, in flashbacks, chronological cross-cuts and so forth. Given that it's also a trashy thriller of the kind that used to make up the second half of double bills in crumbling downtown theaters, circa 1977, I also suspect this was an ingenious way to cut expenses. Shoot 58 minutes of footage and wind up with a full-length movie.
Orlando Bloom is the name star in "Haven" and also serves as executive producer, which must mean he thought making the film was a good idea. He plays a kid named Shy, a fisherman's son who lives on Grand Cayman. Now, it may occur to you that most people in the Cayman Islands, especially the ones who do things like catching fish for a living, are black. Orlando Bloom, while he may be very handsome indeed, is not black. This is not explained in the film at all; it's just that kind of film. (The press notes helpfully explain that Shy's parents are English, which only helps a little.)
Various things happen in "Haven," which has lurid colors and pretty Caribbean scenery, and was written and directed by Frank E. Flowers. Shy is having a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship with a rich girl named Andrea (Zoe Saldana), whose brother, Hammer (Anthony Mackie), holds a massive grudge against Shy for some never-explained reason. Please, Hammer, don't hurt him!
A sleazoid Miami businessman (Bill Paxton) is on the tax-haven island with a million bucks in cash, trying to outrun the feds. His daughter, Pippa (Agnes Bruckner), gets entangled with a low-rent local Lothario named Fritz (Victor Rasuk), who finds out about the million bucks and, unfortunately, owes a favor to a local gangster known as Richie Rich (Razaaq Adoti). It's all ominous and fateful, engrossing in a cheap way. Flowers pretty much convinces you that all these characters are going to come together in an explosive tropical cocktail, and do the Macarena until they die.
That's kind of what happens. Then again, I sat through this whole movie, and I'm not sure what happens. Someone gets disfigured with acid, and looks just as good as they did before. Someone gets beaten up by a rent-a-cop in a laundromat. (They don't have real police to beat you up in the Caymans, or what?) Commentary is provided by the inveterate slut, the gay guy and the coked-out white chicks. But what the hell's going on? Does somebody get away with murder? Do the Paxton and Bloom story lines have any connection at all? When you watch this on cable in eight months, you might like it. Explain it to me then.
"Haven" opens Sept. 15 nationwide.