May 2001 by Simon Weil
Part 2 of 3
Part 1: Bitches Brew
Part 3: Wynton Marsalis and George Lucas
In 1974, George Lucas' film American Graffiti appeared. It was a runaway success. It evoked the early 60s, a time which, after the turmoil of the Vietnam/Watergate years was presented as something of a golden age. Lucas explained:
"I realized after THX [Downbeat Sci-Fi movie, Lucas' first] that people don't care about how the country's being ruined. All that movie did was make people more pessimistic, more depressed, and less willing to get involved in trying to make the world better. So I decided that this time I would make a more optimistic film that makes people feel more positive about their fellow human beings. It's too easy to make films about Watergate. And it's hard to be optimistic when everyone tells you to be pessimistic and cynical. I'm a very bad cynic. But we've got to generate optimism. Maybe kids will walk out of the film and for a second they'll feel, 'We could really make something out of this country, or we could really make something out of our lives.' It's all that hokey stuff about being a good neighbor, and the American spirit and all that crap. There is something in it."
"...Now everybody says, "The country's rotten. We've fought for change, but it doesn't work. It's hopeless.' Well, life isn't that way. It wasn't for THX, it wasn't that way for Curt Henderson [Lucas' two heroes] and it isn't that way for me. When they said I would never get into the film business, I said, ' Well, okay, but I'll try it anyway.' Anybody who wants to do anything can do it. It's an old hokey American point of view, but I've sort of discovered it's true."
Lucas Interviews/Stephen Farber 1974 p42
One can see how far America had changed from 1969, the year of Woodstock, to 1974. The optimism of the counterculture faded away and what was left was a sense of defeat and moral decay brought about by the experience of Watergate and Vietnam. An experience evoked in the many excellent films (e.g The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Night Moves, The Parallax View, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now) of the mid and late 70s. There was also an economic aspect:
"In the midseventies, the American century seemed to be collapsing. People began to sit around and mope about one foreign insult after another, and most of all, about the apparent end of the good times...
Through the late forties, fifties and sixties Americans had taken it for granted that their country was invulnerable and their prosperity grew sweeter every year...Median family income increased annually by 2.7 percent between 1947 and 1973. It was downhill from there, especially for the bottom two thirds of the workforce. Family income fell and kept falling right into the early eighties. And, unthinkably, America ran out of gas.
The watershed was the oil embargo imposed by the Arabs in the Yom Kippur war of October 1973...
[As the seventies wore on] A new word defined the misery: stagflation."
The American Century/Evans p604
Lucas' film has, notably, a teen culture utterly untouched by a lack of gas. His success was to offer Americans, for the first time, a seeming antidote to the malaise of the 70s.
Perhaps you can sum up this malaise in an image from Arthur Penn's Night Moves. The hero, a private detective, that characteristic figure from the movies, had originally been hired to find a young teenage girl. He found her alright. Brought her back home. The next thing he knows she's dead. And indeed a lot of other people die in the movie, all to a greater or lesser extent corrupt. Only the girl is innocent. At the end Gene Hackman, the star, is left in boat going round in circles in the middle of the ocean. He's wounded in the leg. What he has learnt is going to end up destroying his marriage as well. He appears to get the boat under control - But to what end? By following the thing through to the bitter end - out of, it seems, simply decency, he has ended up destroying just about everything around him. One could hardly have a more despairing image.
For Miles Davis, it seems, the malaise hit some time between the end of 1970 and mid 1972, when he recorded On the Corner. At the end of 1970 his trumpet playing still had a verve. There are no commercially available recordings from then until the June 1972 sessions. He plays little on On the Corner, the music is a dense mesh of rhythm laden with angst and unease. Funk that's no fun. When Miles' trumpet comes through on "Helen Butte", it is mournful. No longer the man who evoked the "world champion" Jack Johnson, Davis had changed. What happened?
"In March 1972, some eight thousand African Americans (three thousand of whom were official delegates) arrived in Gary, Indiana, to attend the first convention of the National Black Political assembly, which was more commonly known as the "Gary Convention"...[The result: A] sea of black faces was chanting, "It's Nation Time! It's Nation Time!" No one in the room had ever seen anything like this before.
The feeling among the delegates that it was, indeed, "Nation Time" captures the political sensibilities dominating the convention. The radical black nationalists clearly won the day; moderates who supported integration and backed the Democratic party were in the minority. Most of the delegates - at least the most vocal ones - agreed that African-American communities faced a social and economic crisis, and that nothing short of fundamental changes in the political and economic system could bring an end to this crisis. As the famous Gary Declaration put it:
"A Black political convention, indeed all truly Black politics, must begin from this truth: The American system does not work for the masses of our people, and it cannot be made to work without radical, fundamental changes. (Indeed, this system does not really work in favor of the humanity of anyone in America.) ...
The challenge is thrown to us here in Gary. It is the challenge to consolidate and organize our own Black role as the vanguard in the struggle for a new society. To accept the challenge is to move to independent Black politics. There can be no equivocation on that issue. History leaves us no other choice. White politics has not and cannot bring the changes we need."
A History of African Americans/Kelley and Lewis p554-5
This was a break from the integrationist sensibility. The idea that blacks and the white activists might fight together was in the past. Now blacks must go for themselves. The Gary Declaration marked a seachange. Surely this must have been a great shock to Miles - who started an attempt to reach a black audience with On the Corner. In effect it must have killed his hope that the integrationist ideal which he had espoused from Bitches Brew (1969) onward - something that had animated the music through which he lived - would come to fruition. I believe that this is where the angst and unease, the mournfulness, the malaise, comes from. Miles lost hope. Talking about a car accident in 1972 that left him with two broken legs, Carr says it was "almost as if Miles were courting disaster" (p309).
One can sense some of his despair in the following exchange:
[Q] Are you afraid to die?
[MD] No [Miles laughs out loud] All these lectures - "protecting Your Inner Karma," and all that shit. How many people know they even have one? I mean, think of all those guys who go to the [Vietnam] war; they go for no reason and kill somebody they don't even know, and then they come back and a guy calls you a black motherfucker or something, and you have a reason to smash his head and you do it and you're a criminal and you have to go to court, but you don't have to go to court for going in the army and killing fifty people you don't know.
It's easy to do...kill somebody. I mean the police do it all the time and nobody says a fuckin' thing. They don't go to church and say, "I'm sorry I killed that guy."
[Narration] Miles stops for awhile and stares at a little group of three trophies that stand next to his bed. Each is an army boxing trophy, a little gold-plated fighter brazenly leading with his right. Miles resumes:
[MD] They're trained like my son was trained - to kill. These trophies...my son's. He was a champion boxer in the Army. In Germany. He comes back, a white guy pokes fun at him because of his color, and the first thing my son does is to try to break his neck. You know? And I tried to tell him about that shit.
But he's a Black Muslim, and he says, "What do you think I'm supposed to do, father, let the guy stand up and say that to me? They sent me into the Army to kill somebody I don't even know, then they won't even give me a job, they make fun of me." I mean it takes all the spirit out of him.
[Narration] Miles looks down and closes those huge eyes for a moment, revealing a poignancy I couldn't have envisaged in his features after studying them closely during the dozen of times I've seen him on the bandstand.
Miles Davis Companion p156-7 Interview with Stephen Davis March 1973
"[Q] Do you listen to records?
[MD] No man, they're all in here [Miles taps head] Everything. I got a place for Lightnin' Hopkins. I got a place for Stravinsky. And right here [Miles taps his frontal lobe in the middle of his forehead] I got a place for SSSlllyyyyy."
Miles Davis Companion p164 Interview with Stephen Davis March 1973
"In November 1971, [Sly Stone] finally released a new album, just in time for Christmas. It was a less than merry affair, however. The title was There's a Riot Goin' On and the title song was timed at precisely no minutes and no seconds. That was just a clue.
The next hint lay in the revulsion felt by many listeners - particularly, it may be safely said, white listeners. Where was the joyous life-affirming black hero? The music stumbled, faltered, its rhythms hobbled like a heroin roller coaster...
...After you listen for a while, it got scary. "Feel so good/Feel so good/Don't wanna move" was what passed for exuberance on this record. It was the aural equivalent of William Burrough's Naked Lunch ("...when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork"). Those who didn't stop listening grew fascinated by the resulting chills and despair; even those who didn't want to know, though, couldn't shut them out. Riot had not one but three singles...
[The white audience] was hardly prepared to deal with a black hero who decided to work completely on his own terms; but even if he had to make those terms up, that's what Sly was doing. In effect he took the power of his stardom and shook it in every gray face....
Riot was perfectly timed...the airwaves were soon filled with tough black testimony, unbending, seeking its own audience and not caring much about the damage done to integrationist...sensibilities. The Temptations scored their own experience with "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." Curtis Mayfield turned in Super Fly, a cheap movie soundtrack that came to life on radio as one of the most searing antidrug diatribes ever written. War proclaimed "The World Is Ghetto" and warned against "Slippin' Into Darkness." Stevie Wonder excoriated "Superstition", caught the full misery of "Living for the City." Marvin Gaye asked simply "What's Going On?" The O'Jays railed against "Back Stabbers." There was no avoiding this music or what it had to say, every one of those songs was right there on the radio...
They reflected an almost unspoken acknowledgement of a long list of sins, from the murder of Fred Hampton and thousands of Vietnamese and Black GIs, to crime in the streets and the everyday robbery at the grocery store, from the loss of simple friendship to the lack of center for most people's lives. It was the world of Sixties turned inside out.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll/ ed Miller (Article by Dave Marsh) p317-8
Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On is a direct precursor of On the Corner. The density, the despair and, especially, the response of the critics was parallel. Miles acknowledged Stone's influence in his autobiography:
It was with Sly Stone and James Brown in mind that I went into the studio in June 1972 to record On the Corner..What I was playing on On the Corner had no label...it was actually a combination of some of the concepts of Paul Buckmaster, Sly Stone, James Brown, and Stockhausen, some of the concepts I had absorbed from Ornette's music, as well as my own.
Miles/The Autobiography p312
The classical content of On the Corner is apparent. Indeed I believe there is a classical element in all Miles work from A Silent Way till 1975. Although the music contains elements of rock and jazz, I don't think it is either. Nor do I think that jazz-rock is an appropriate term. At root, I believe it closest to a musique concrete whose organising intelligence is Miles. It has solos and interplay that contribute to this. This is particularly so on On the Corner and In a Silent Way where the material has a cut and paste, collage-like quality. A similar effect appears on At Fillmore. There is also a strange dislocated quality to the music itself, with instrumental passages appearing and disappearing abruptly - at Miles' direction - in what is, at it were, a live version of cut and paste. A musique concrete constructed from jazz, rock and funk materials.
My view is that On the Corner and There's a Riot Goin' On are parallels in music to The Conversation, Taxi Driver and Night Moves. They all evoke the malaise of the 70s, if from different sources. In the 70s, Americans lost hope in their dreams. For Miles it kept on like that. From 1972-5, his trumpet playing, although sometimes attaining a surface sparkle, becomes overall darker and darker -There is a sense that he no longer hopes for success - finally evoking a sense of complete defeat on Agharta and Pangea, the last records before his retirement. Although his technical facility is sometimes in doubt, and the ensemble is often scrappy, these records nevertheless retain integrity and content. Miles was quite unflinching in presenting himself on stage until he could simply go on no longer. In his biography he says that he had nothing left to say. Another way of putting it would be that he burnt himself out. There is a certain parallel to Francis Coppola who burnt himself out with Apocalypse Now - also a work of defeat. Coppola's Kurtz just waits there to be assassinated.
As we saw, George Lucas set himself this trend - seeking to "generate optimism", to make people "feel, 'We could really make something out of this country, or we could really make something out of our lives.'" with American Graffiti. Presented with this antidode to malaise, the public responded. Lucas got carte blanche for his next project, Star Wars, a fantasy movie set in outer space, which once more sought to accentuate the positive:
"Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film," [Lucas said], " I realized there was another relevance that is even more important - dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps - that you could sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures. Once I got into Star Wars it struck me that we had lost all that - a whole generation was growing up without fairy tales. You just don't get them any more, and that's the best stuff in the world - adventures in far-off lands. It's fun.
I wanted to do a modern fairy tale, a myth..."
Lucas Interviews/Stephen Zito 1977 p53
In 1985, he said:
"About ten years ago I set out to write a children's film, and I had an idea of a modern fairy tale. My friends all said, '"What are you doing? You're crazy. You have to do something important. You have to do something that is socially relevant. You have to do something that is art with a capital A. You have to do what we're doing." I had been working on a project about Vietnam [Apocalypse Now] and I had abandoned it - gave it to a friend of mine [Francis Coppola] and said I've got to do this children's film.
I didn't know what I was doing at the time I started working, started doing research, started writing, and a year went by. I wrote many drafts of this work and then I stumbled across The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was the first time that I really began to focus. Once I had read that book I said to myself, This is what I've been doing. This is it. I had been reading other doctors - Freudians and also dealing with an ample supply of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge and all the other mythical heroes of our times. But The Hero with a Thousand Faces was the first time a book began to focus what I had already been doing intuitively. I began to see a lot of parallels and began to become fascinated with this whole process and as a result I picked up several other books [by Campbell]... as I continued to write...[George Lucas 1985]
The Hero's Journey [Campbell] p186
Here he quite specifically set himself against that paradigm malaise film - Apocalypse Now - suggesting that he had given all that up that to write Star Wars. Instead of "angry", "social" "Art" - "what we're doing", Lucas looked elsewhere. To Joseph Campbell, whose work on mythology brought an anti-negative focus - paralleling Lucas's own:
"In an era undermined by a pervasive feeling of deep skeptism and anxiety [Campbell was ] someone who insisted that we find "what electrifies an enlivens our hearts and wakens us." In fact the public found in Joseph Campbell what the poet W. B. Yeats called "the old eagles mind, the wise old man, the rarest of archetypes in a land of eternal youth."
The Hero's Journey/Campbell Introduction xvii
A holidaying 20th Century Fox (which had produced Star Wars) executive noticed that the stock had gone up sharply. Why? He rang a reporter... "Where are you, on the moon...Star Wars opened yesterday...The biggest opening in history, the projections are that it will be the biggest movie ever."
Empire Building/Garry Jenkins p163-4
Star Wars lived up to the projections
'Today, movies say that the system is corrupt, that the whole thing stinks. When movie after movie tells audience[s] that they should be against themselves it's hardly surprising that people go out of the theaters drained, numbly convinced that with so much savagery and cruelty everywhere, nothing can be done...that has been the theme not only of movies, but of pop culture in the 70s. Helplessness, dread, cynicism and random cruelty. Victory is beyond us, we are taught. Well not in Star Wars. There the bad guys get zapped with death rays and the good guys get a kiss on the cheek and a medal. There is a tremendous amount of action but no blood. No sex. Not even a little flash of thigh. It's hard to believe people want to go see it. But they do. So maybe the 70s are over and the first movie of the 1980s has begun. Not a moment too soon.
Roger Simon (Summer 1977, the year Star Wars was released) quoted in Jenkins p179
This was a change. In the 70s cinema had been in decline. Audiences driven off by the darkness of so many of the movies went elsewhere, or perhaps watched TV. There had been a concern that this was the end for one of the "Two Artforms of the 20th Century" - the other was jazz. But, no. Star Wars was subtitled "A New Hope" and it ensured a lasting change in the fortunes of the film industry.
Jaws...brought people back to cinema. Star Wars brought them back to stay. In 1977, a year utterly dominated by Lucas's film, weekly audiences in America exceeded 20 million people for the first time since 1963. It would mark the beginning of a lasting renaissance in filmgoing. In the two decades that followed, only twice - and then marginally - would the figure slip below the 20 million mark again. The sense that a new era was at hand was obvious all over Hollywood.
The audience responded to the film's optimism.
But its success has a downside:
'Star Wars was in,' [Martin] Scorsese said somberly, 'Spielberg was in. We were finished.' William Friedkin agreed; ' Star Wars swept all the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars was like when MacDonalds got a foothold - the taste for good food disappeared.' Marcia [Lucas, editor on Star Wars, ex-wife of George Lucas said]..'Right now , I'm just disgusted by the American film industry. There are so few good films, and part of me thinks Star Wars is partly responsible for the direction the industry has gone in, and I feel badly about that.'"
George Lucas/Baxter p246
[George Lucas] has played a leading role in the renewing of the universal popularity of a medium that appeared in terminal decline. But he must also take his share of the blame for the creation of the high concept 'event movie' that has contributed to the coarsening of cinematic palates and the process that has been called the dumbing down of the culture. The fact that in a recent poll of the moviegoing public Star Wars was voted the best picture of all time is truly disturbing.
Philip French /The Observer (UK) 18th July 1999
When I read Philip French's article I sensed there was a parallel to be made between Lucas and Wynton Marsalis, the man who is asserted to have "saved" jazz. The final part of this essay will attempt to draw that parallel out.
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