Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"Not poor, just broke": Deceased Artiste Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory never shut up. When other standup comedians did “safe” comedy about airlines, the “battle of the sexes,” and living in suburbia, Greg (as he was known to his friends and fans; he wrote that “the White press started referring to me as 'Dick' Gregory”) took his place as “the black Mort Sahl,” dissecting issues of the day with pointed humor.

When other comedians avoided civil rights marches (Lenny Bruce, whom Greg considered a “genius,” openly admitted he was wary of attending the marches), Greg put himself in the front lines and always had a fast joke and insight for a nearby news camera. When black celebrities had a choice in the Sixties whether they would keep their career on an even keel or make a statement with their behavior, Greg made it clear where he stood and actually killed his comedic career by being such a committed individual. Greg wouldn't shut up, and for that we should all be grateful.

He may not have been the single best black standup comic of all time (that honor will always go to Pryor, of whom Greg said in his book Callus on My Soul, “Richard Pryor surpassed me in many ways.”) and he never had a fraction of the multi-million dollar success of Bill Cosby or Chris Rock. But because he took the chances he took and because he never stopped talking about injustice, Gregory was arguably the most important standup of his generation and inarguably the first “modern” black standup.

The first thing that strikes you when watching footage of Greg in the early Sixties — of which there is precious little on the Net — is how relaxed he is. It's not a spaced-out calm, it's an impressively low-key attitude he maintains while saying very sharp things. Take, for example, the segment he did on a Merv Griffin Show episode in 1965, which aired recently on Get TV and is sadly represented online by this brief snippet of panel talk rather than standup:

The topics he discussed are sadly timeless, most prominently police brutality in communities of color. He remained concerned and authentic while also being level-headed about the topics under discussion. Greg had the aspect of a reporter (or, more properly, an op-ed columnist) in his standup, someone who is pointing out the absurdity of it all, but also noting the “normalcy” that disguised racist views, the way in which most of the things he opposed were touted simply as “the way it is.” The best early footage of him can be found here at 15:18:

As he got older he became much more outraged. It was a brutal reaction that came about most likely because he had seen so many of his allies from the Movement die violent deaths (many of which were highly suspect and — gosh, can it be? — wound up benefitting our government). So Greg became an old voice calling young people to account, saying in essence that the work his colleagues started isn't done and, most likely, won't be finished for decades to come.

Greg celebrated the Obama presidency but had no delusions about a “post-racial” America, and he said so, which made it impossible for him to get on mainstream TV. Except for Arsenio Hall, who continued to bring on the “old guard” of black standups (Gregory, Mooney, even Dolemite himself, Rudy Ray Moore).

So Greg guested on left-wing programs — not the phony liberal shows on MSNBC, but the shows that are as “Left as is comfortable” in the U.S., like Democracy Now. This tribute episode includes a large chunk of a 2001 interview in which Greg does parts of his act in an interview with Amy Goodman.

There again you've got Greg in his element — talking with an assurance and a wry straightforwardness that never let the viewer lay back and disconnect. When he was in his standup persona, Greg invited you to laugh but he never wanted you to get so comfortable that you'd tune out the fact that the absurdities he was talking about are taken as “normal” in America.

Greg put his life on the line on a regular basis. He kept taking crazy chances with his health (through countless months-long hunger strikes) and his personal safety way into his senior years. In what was a clear challenge to younger people (and the rest of us), he was saying, “here's an old man who won't sit down and be quiet — what about you?” He could, however, still do a calm and straightforward interview.

An ample amount of Greg's comedy is available online in audio form, but his books still need to be read. From the first he shook things up, calling his autobiography nigger (1964), to get the word right out there on bookshelves. He also offered reflections on the Movement in From the Back of the Bus (1962), the story of his write-in run for President (Write Me In!, 1968), a second volume of his autobiography (Up From Nigger, 1976), and a survey of his dietary/health advice (Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat, 1973).

All the above (except the diet book) was in my local Jackson Heights, Queens, library when I was growing up and I found them to be great “101s” about the civil rights movement, with the proper amount of somberness and tenacity but also with jokes (it never hurts to teach with a smile).

I recently finished reading Greg's last memoir Callus on My Soul (2000), which was apparently going to be turned into a documentary by actor-filmmaker Bill Duke. There's a short version of the doc (or a long version of the trailer?) on Vimeo:

It was great to “catch up” with Greg's life — he hadn't written in the intervening years about his weight-loss product years and the many (many!) political issues he protested since the Sixties. His process for opposing an event or institution was specific: speaking out, protesting, and getting arrested if necessary. In Callus he dotes wisely on the importance of the “press” a given protest would get – decades before the Internet, he, like Abbie Hoffman and others on the Left, understood that the most important thing is the media coverage of an event. Check out the footage after 34:00 in this assemblage of great clips:

Callus has one curious “thread”: the number of times that Greg felt “something was wrong” and didn't go somewhere, only to later find that one of his friends was killed in the place he didn't go. It is an odd trope — it's almost like he was saying that he was sorry his friends had to die, but that he's glad that he hadn't joined them.

Perhaps, though, this only struck me as odd because of my own atheism — throughout his life, Greg credited two forces for keeping him out of harm: God and his wife, Lil (who survived him; the couple were married for 58 years until Greg's death). In the instances in which he survived a “near-miss” his prayers, he says in Callus, were what kept him alive.

The book has an informal voice, thanks to co-author Sheila P. Moses keeping Greg's own thoughts and reflections on things in the forefront, while offering younger readers historical context for the situations he writes about. One of the things that was always impressive about Greg was the degree to which he credited his writing staff. On his comedy albums he made their names known, and in his books, he put the cowriters' names right below his own, in the same type-size (no invisible ghost writers for him). Here’s a long C-SPAN interview with Greg about Callus:

In a profession like standup comedy, where the younger performers want to appear like “whiz kids” who write all their material, it was refreshingly honest of Greg to acknowledge the presence of the men (and women) who made his act as good as it was.

Sadly, a lot of the videos found on YT consist of Greg as a senior berating his younger interviewers for not being familiar with history he was talking about (real and extrapolated). The very real conspiracies  he had discussed in decades past had transformed into discussions of how each trauma experienced by a black celebrity was a conspiracy — making it seem as if the immaculately talented Prince and Michael Jackson were the targets of state-sponsored “hits” like Medgar Evers, JFK, and Dr. King were.

Those videos show that Greg lost none of his fire as he got older, but he unfortunately went off in a direction that didn't befit his kind of intensity. Of far more importance is the very real situation he talks about near the end of Callus: the CIA's introduction into black communities of a billion dollars’ worth of cocaine, creating the crack epidemic of the Eighties — and funding the Contras in Nicaragua and American activities in El Salvador.

This is the kind of “reporting” we needed and always got from Greg. And if he wasn't as calm and wry as a senior as he was as a young man, he continued to fight the good fight until his last days. A hell of a legacy for man who started out as a nightclub comedian….


A few of his comedy albums can be listened to in their entirety on YT, some track by track (such as his first from 1961, In Living Black and White). Here is one side of East and West:

The Two Sides of Dick Gregory (1963):

The later Greg, from 1969: The Light Side: The Dark Side:

One of his best routines from the later period, “Frankenstein,” finds him conflating a bunch of the Universal monster pics, but creating a nice allegory for the Civil Rights Movement:

A very good interview from 1966, shot in a nightclub:

1968 interview, about presidential candidacy (b&w)

A quite odd program: Friends of… Gloria Swanson from 1977. An apparent lunchtime presentation that lasts two hours, it was produced here in NYC by Metromedia Ch. 5. The discussion centers on food and health. (Greg openly condemned sugar — but would you rather eat sugary food or kelp? That was the main ingredient in his nutrient product called “Formula Four X.”)

As a final shot over the ramparts, here’s Greg and the brilliant Mr. Paul Mooney cutting loose for an hour on the radio in 2012:

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

La reine est morte: Deceased Artiste Jeanne Moreau

"One of my biggest heroes is Jeanne Moreau. She has perfected all the moves, the high art of smoking a cigarette . . . or walking with a straight skirt. Perfecting those kinds of rhythms are, to me, just as worthy of worship as somebody's playin' a great harmonica." — Patti Smith 

When Louis Malle, the director who pretty much single-handedly jumpstarted her career, cast Jeanne Moreau opposite Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria! (1965), he was creating a comedy team for his half-baked farce comprised of France’s biggest sex symbol and its most talented screen actress. BB was the former and Moreau was, without question, the latter.

Her obits dubbed her an iconic performer of the French New Wave, but she was so much more than that — and in fact worked with only one actual New Wave filmmaker, Truffaut, on two films. Malle, Vadim, and Demy were chronologically of the same generation as the nouvelle vague, but their work hovered outside of the core of that movement, which consisted primarily of the Cahiers “posse” and the “Left Bank” filmmakers (Resnais, Varda, Marker).

Moreau was a stage-trained actress who had been a member of the Comédie-Française. In her early films she played ingénue roles – the film that featured her in that capacity that was best-distributed over here was Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). The two films that introduced her to world cinema — Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers (both 1958) — found her delivering multi-faceted performances that are simultaneously distant yet sensual, cunning yet sympathetic, and wise yet susceptible to sudden bouts of emotion and ardor.

Elevator is an excellent thriller with a dynamite score by Miles Davis, but The Lovers created more of a stir because of one scene that caused a theater owner in Ohio to be brought up on obscenity charges for showing it. The scene in question is a beautifully done erotic interval in which Moreau's character and her lover (not her husband, mind you) have a lovely walk through the countryside while Brahms plays, then return to her house.

In the house, she makes sure her son is asleep, then leads her lover back to the bedroom. The two kiss for a while and then it happens – the man pleasures Jeanne, with him leaving the frame (moving, one might note, *down* the lady's body) resulting in her having an orgasm (you see only Moreau's face, until their hands clasp together after she has had the orgasm). So the scene in question that was declared to be pornographic wasn't any old sex scene, it was simulated (read: offscreen!) cunnilingus.

By today's standards the scene is mildly “naughty” and would probably even pass muster on a regular network. By the standards of the time, though, the scene was objectionable (and even, to some minds, “kinky” – yeah, when the lady likes it, it's a kink!). The scene begins in earnest at 1:13:25.

Moreau's talent was such that she was not branded as “That Lovers girl” after the controversy over the film died down. This was a result of her strict work ethic (best reflected today in the career of her La Truite costar, the adventurous and fearless Isabelle Huppert).

She went from one project to the next, looking for challenging roles that weren't copies of what she had already done. As a result, the early Sixties was an incredibly fertile period for her, in which she moved from character to character, creating some of the performances for which she became best known.

Moreau and Truffaut
Foremost among these is Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) — the claim that she was “a 'New Wave' actress” seems to rest primarily on this one role, that of Catherine, who has affairs with both titular characters (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre). The film is far from my favorite of the New Wave classics, but the fact that it doesn't end on a happy note is probably what has made it such a memorable work for so many viewers. (Contrary to what Hollywood has always thought, most viewers can retain a tragic ending rather than a happy one.)

Moreau's other starring performance for Truffaut is one that I can return to again and again — her chameleonic turn in The Bride Wore Black (1968) For me, Truffaut was at his absolute best adapting “Serie noire” titles, and with Bride he not only brought to life the wonderful first suspense novel by noir master Cornell Woolrich, he also came up with a better conclusion than Woolrich had in the book.

Moreau is centerstage throughout, and she is a magnificent figure. Like most of Woolrich's protagonists, her character is pretty much a cipher who exists as a function of her need for vengeance — she has sworn to kill the men who shot her husband on their wedding day (the plot of Kill Bill, another “lift and carry” job by Tarantino). As she insinuates herself into the lives of her targets, she is an angel of vengeance who seduces in order to kill. One can't imagine many actresses who could carry off the role (more properly, roles) even half as well.

Closing out her brief association with the New Wave, I come to Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1963), a film about gambling that is one of those films that one enjoys while watching but can't quite remember afterward.

The first thing that sticks to the brain pan is the sight of Moreau as a platinum blonde. The other central attraction is the stunning first shot of the film, which consists of a track backward from Moreau.

Otherwise, the film is a solid piece of storytelling about the lure of gambling, but nothing in it quite equals the beauty of Moreau and the genius of this bravura shot. (The scene is nowhere online at the moment, but its opening can seen in this GIF and it is seen briefly in a trailer here.) 

Moreau acted in films in several countries, but her sharpest work was in French cinema. She only worked with Don Luis Bunuel once, but the collaboration was a memorable one, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). It's an incredible vehicle for Jeanne that contains the immortal moment she models boots bought for her by the family patriarch.

One of the great artists at work in both England and France in the Sixties and Seventies was the American expatriate (read: blacklist victim) Joseph Losey. Moreau worked him twice, in Eva (1962) and in a supporting part in La Truite (1982), starring Isabelle Huppert.

Moreau only worked once with Antonioni, but it was on the wonderfully atmospheric La Notte (1961) with Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti. I say only worked with the great filmmaker once because a documentary made by his daughter about the filming of Beyond the Clouds (1995) indicates that Wim Wenders directed the sequence she did in that film with, again, the great Marcello. So, although she is in that Antonioni film from an Antonioni script, she was directed by Wenders.
La Notte
The dedicated work ethic of European performers means that even if they are “A-list” stars they are more than willing to play smaller roles in movies they deem significant (in America A-listers avoid supporting roles, unless they are wise enough to turn “character actor” for a role, as with Connery in The Untouchables). Moreau worked in this capacity for a number of directors, including Funhouse fave Bertrand Blier.  She had a very memorable role in Blier's provocative (and wonderful) Going Places (1974).

Duras and Moreau
She also maintained a friendship with writer Marguerite Duras, with whom she worked in various capacities.

Moreau acted for Duras in Nathalie Granger, 1972, starred in a film that Duras adapted as a screenwriter from a work by Jean Genet (Mademoiselle, 1966), narrated a movie based on her work (The Lover, 1992) and, finally, played her in Cet amour-là (2001).

One of the most talented and prolific French filmmakers working today is Francois Ozon. Some of his films are star-studded (8 Women, In the House); others feature excellent performers who are unknown to the average viewer (Criminal Lovers, Frantz). In 2005, Ozon cast Moreau as a grandmother dealing with her grandson being stricken with cancer in the underrated Time to Leave.

Moreau appeared in a select amount of American movies and international coproductions shot in English. These films ranged from the prestige (Frankenheimer's The Train Kazan's The Last Tycoon) to films that represented little more than a paycheck (Ever After).

Her strongest collaboration with an American filmmaker was with Le Grand Orson. She had prominent roles in all his Sixties features, including the superb Chimes at Midnight (1965) and the never finished The Deep. Years back I saw a German archivist discuss the fact that Orson had indeed shot just about all of his script for The Deep — he just never recorded the dialogue (the film was shot on board a boat, and the ambient sound was useless). Perhaps the single clearest example of Orson shooting himself in the foot, The Deep was a project that Orson shelved, when all he had to do was gather the cast and have them dub in their lines. Such were the complicated and sad ways in which he self-destructed.

Moreau's most interesting legacy and the hardest to trace for American viewers is her work as a film director. Her film Lumiere (1976), in which she starred, hasn't been available since the Eighties (on VHS); it also hasn't played the rep-house circuit since the Reagan era. (I saw it back then, but its plot points and imagery have disappeared from mine own mind.)

She also directed a doc on Lillian Gish (no info on that at all). Her second and last fiction film as a director is tucked away “above ground” on the Internet. (I won't be supplying the URL on here, but it's easily found with the help of a search engine.)

L'Adolescente (1979) is an emotional coming of age story about a 12-year-old girl's eventful summer vacation in 1939, as the world hovered on the brink of war. Moreau doesn’t appear in the film, but she put her imprint on it by narrating the film. Her voice was definitely one of her greatest tools as an actress; it remained her signature — along with her full-lipped, determined visage — as an actress.

The plot follows Marie (Laetitia Chauveau) as she goes with her parents to her grandmother’s house in the provinces for the summer. Marie develops her first crush on the local doctor (Francis Huster), who in turn is in love with her mother (Edith Clever). Marie's crush is conveyed with great sincerity, but her subsequent focus after she is rebuffed by the doctor — to make her parents love each other again — reminds us that she is still a little girl whose world revolves around the adults in her life. 

The star of the film isn’t Chauveau (who does look like a miniature version of the young Moreau), but her grandmother, played by the inimitable Simone Signoret. She is the perfect grandmother — caring and all-knowing, superstitious, old-fashioned, and yet very aware of modern behavior (and thus very discreet).

Signoret never gave a bad performance in her later work, but it’s interesting to consider the comparison to Moreau. While Jeanne remained a romantic lead for long into her middle age (as has Huppert), Signoret became a character person much earlier on.  Both Jeanne and Simone were consummate talents, whose once mellifluous voices were made very raspy by decades of smoking.

In closing, some “bonus” clips, starting with a few of Moreau singing. It seemed that every European actress of her era had a side career as a singer, and La Moreau was no exception. Here she is on TV, singing the song from Jules and Jim, “Le tourbillon.”

Years later, Vanessa Paradis performed the song with Moreau on TV:

A nice bit of Sixties kitsch: Though billed as a Scopitone, this 1963 performance seems to have simply been a performance on television.

Moreau singing in Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (1970). Very straightforward and utterly charming.

Jeanne sings in Tony Richardson’s Sailor from Gibraltar (1967):

One of her finest performances in a most extreme motion picture (extreme in its level of passion and obsession) is the starring role in Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966). Patti Smith wrote a frenzied, gonzo paean to the film, it is one of John Waters’ favorites, and it most certainly deserves your attention. Here is a key sequence, without subtitles (although you don’t need them):

Moreau had a smaller role in Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991), but she is the “final destination” in the search undertaken by our hero (William Hurt). Her blindness causes her scientist husband (Max von Sydow) to create a device that can “record” dreams and show them on a little portable device (prefiguring pretty much all of 21st-century portable media).

If, as was rumored in jest, Fassbinder made his final film Querelle (1982) just to see Brad Davis in a French sailor suit, he surely also made the film to see Jeanne Moreau perform a torchy ballad written around an adage by Oscar Wilde.