Tuesday, March 05, 2013

True/False 2013 Day 3: Standing in the Shadows

Day three of True/False was probably the most pleasant day of the festival for me. Part of this is because all of my screenings were at the Missouri Theater, an old-style movie palace that has been restored since the early days of True/False. It makes a huge difference when you see any movie in an audience as large as the Missouri Theater audiences. The Missouri seats 1200 people and it was absolutely packed all weekend. It also has the most comfortable seats of any True/False venue. This was not something to sneeze at, given the number of movies I was sitting through. My ass was thankful for the respite. My favorite place to sit in most theaters is in center of the second or third row. The nice thing about this is that most people don't like sitting so close, so I usually had my choice of seats if I got there in time.

The two other films I saw on Saturday were The Gatekeepers and Twenty Feet From Stardom, both of which are about people who work in the shadows.

A documentary that consists almost entirely of interviews is going to have a hard row to hoe, depending on who the interviewee is. Most such documentaries salt things with archival footage to break up the visual monotony (though some filmmakers, particularly Errol Morris, have other stylistic tricks up their sleeves). The Gatekeepers (2012, directed by Dror Moreh) only does a little of this. Its six interviewees hold the camera in part based on their erudition, but also because of who they are. They are six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service, a security organization dedicated to counter-terrorism. Over the course of the film, all six men describe successful operations, definitions of their aims, criticism of the machineries of statecraft, and, to a one, regrets over the ultimate disposition of the current policies of Israel regarding security and the Palestinians. It's startling in its frankness. You never hear politicians speak like this, but then, these men aren't politicians, they're merely the tools by which politics are implemented.

The history on display here goes back mainly to the Six Days War in 1967, after which Israel found itself in possession of twice the territory it had previously possessed. What to do with it? What to do with the Palestinians who lived there? How to react to the pushback from an occupied people. The policies these guys pursued were often pragmatic and often horrifying. They don't apologize for this, though, but they do indulge in the regret of hindsight. The most engaging stories are about the nuts and bolts of their activities, the specifics, whether it's blowing up a target with a cell phone loaded with explosives or pulling the trigger (or not) on a remote rocket attack. These are all practical matters, and divorced, as Yakoov Peri says in the film, from philosophical ones. On a philosophical plane, these men have watched their nation become an imperialist force of occupiers and they fret over what they have become. One of them even goes so far as to compare the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories to the occupations of Poland and France and other countries by Germany. Not to the Holocaust, mind you--that's a different matter--but to the subjugation of nations rather than genocide. I wonder if he believes that Israel is not currently genocidal. It's telling that Yuval Diskin evokes Hannah Arendt's conception of the banality of evil, before going on to describe one man's terrorist as another man's freedom fighter.

As with most issues of intelligence and terrorism, all of this is a morass of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, as Yuval Diskin mentions, politicians prefer binary options. It's only gotten worse as time wears on. The PLO renounces terrorism but is replaced as by Hammas. Splinter groups of Jewish terrorists plot to destabilize the region as a pretext for war. The Intifada pits teenagers with guns and authority against average people with rocks. What a mess. It should be telling that the last six heads of the security service most tasked with protecting the country all argue in favor of a Palestinian state and for talking with, well, everyone, whether Hammas, Iran, or whoever, without preconditions. Talk, they all say, is the only way out of the mess they're in. Sadly, the Netanyahu administration doesn't seem interested.

Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013, directed by Morgan Neville) is a familiar kind of music documentary, one that looks into the shadows behind the superstars and sees the building blocks of popular music. The template for this is Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Twenty Feet From Stardom is not a lot different than that film. Only its focus is different. It chooses to look at back-up singers, and through that choice of subject matter, it accidentally stumbles onto issues of race, sexism, and age. Neville and his crew by necessity focus on women back up singers who came from a gospel background, because expanding that focus would be a trip down the rabbit hole. Besides, it lets the filmmakers open with Lou Reed inviting the colored girls to sing. And sing they do. This has a killer soundtrack.

The roots of this film's narratives are two-fold. The first is Darlene Love and The Blossoms, who were the building blocks of great swaths of music in the early 1960s. Love describes the back-up singers who came before her as "readers," white girls who were technically fine, but had no soul. They read the music from a sheet and didn't inhabit it. Love and the Blossoms were central to Phil Spector's "wall of sound" aesthetic. Spector was a first class asshole long before he added murder to his list of character flaws and Spector's treatment of the artists under him was shameful. Darlene Love should have been one of the great stars of American music. Instead, she found herself cleaning houses after her contract was sold back to Spector. The other root of this film's narrative is Ray Charles, who is credited by this film with the (arguable) innovation of converting gospel musical forms into a secular music. Particularly a music about sex. Ray is the minister and the Raylettes are the choir and songs like "What'd I Say" are a call and response exultation. One of the interviewees performs half of that song without the response as a means of demonstrating the integral role played by the Raylettes. It's a compelling argument.

Most of these women found a kind of freedom singing back-up behind the British Invasion artists. Producers like Spector and Ike Turner had very defined roles for their singers, where as Jagger and Joe Cocker and David Bowie just let the back up singers sing. Merry Clayton's performance on "Gimme Shelter" is incendiary, arguably one of the greatest vocal performances in rock and roll. Clayton is a playful interviewee, chastising Neville and his cameraman for depriving a diva of music in her own car, and then absolutely tearing down the bullshit of Lynyrd Skynrd asking a black woman to sing back-up on "Sweet Home Alabama" (which she did on the advice of her husband). The filmmakers are accomplices in this when they pair this with footage of Clayton tearing it up with Neil Young's "Southern Man."

The hardest question this movie asks is "Why haven't these women succeeded as solo artists?" Clearly, all of them have talent for it. The answers are multifold. Darlene Love was sabotaged by Spector, so that's at least comprehensible. The others? The movie suggests that it takes a certain kind of ego to step into the spotlight. Some of these women--Lisa Fischer, in particular--have flirted with it, but then retreated into the background because they're comfortable there. It's something that Judith Hill is struggling with after being vaulted into the spotlight after singing at Michael Jackson's funeral. The others? Age has caught some of them. Lookism, too. And categoricals born out of racism and sexism. Tata Vega should have been another Aretha Franklin, the movie tells us, but the music industry only has room for one Aretha.

There's a certain malicious satisfaction to be had in watching Darlene Love flourish late in life in spite of Spector. The footage of Love's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is surprisingly emotional. It's well played by the filmmakers. But the art of back-up singing may be heading the way of the dinosaurs. New media has made it hard for back-up singers to get work. Even more insidious is the encroachment of Autotune. The likes of the women in this film may never come again, the movie seems to be saying, and we should celebrate them now while we still can.

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