Friday, November 15, 2013

The Butler: A Zelig-like Tale of Struggle in Which the Metaphor Wears a Tuxedo.

There’s an extraordinary moment towards the end of The Butler, Lee Daniels’ warm-hearted epic film about the American Civil Rights struggle. It comes when the now-retired White House butler, played with calm authority by Forest Whitaker, makes a pilgrimage to his father’s grave, at an old cotton plantation in Georgia. Whitaker and his wife – an exuberant Oprah Winfrey – are clad in shell-suits, and the moment seems almost comic, until Whitaker starts to wonder aloud about Nazi concentration camps. He looks around at the ruined buildings – where, in the first scenes of the film, he has witnessed his mother being led away to be raped and seen his father murdered. “These camps went on for 200 years,” Whitaker says quietly, “right here in America.”
The scene is startling not only because it equates American history with the Holocaust, but also because, in all the numerous controversies which have surrounded the film, no one has mentioned it.
“I got very nervous writing that,” says Daniels, who was Oscar-nominated for directing Precious. “I was nervous about putting it in the story, but you can’t be nervous about the truth. My children are, needless to say, African-American and they go to a practically all-white school in the Upper West Side in New York City, a very prestigious school. And the fact of the matter is that they know more about the Diary of Anne Frank than they do about their own heritage, about the atrocities that have taken place here in America.”
The Butler was inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, from 1952-86. But Whitaker’s butler is a composite, and the story of his family frames the shifting politics of a single lifetime.
“There are some powerful stories intertwining,” says Whitaker. “But what’s great about the film is that it’s about how those things affected our lives. At the heart of it was a story about holding a family together through hard times and troubles, and the prodigal son returning.”
The Butler’s prodigal, Cecil’s more radical son Louis, is played by British actor David Oyelowo, who also appeared in that other cinematic exploration of racial servitude, The Help. “For me,” says Oyelowo, “The Butler takes the conversation forward. The Help is looking at the lives of the domestic servants through the eyes of the white characters. The Butler goes deeper, because you not only see it through the eyes of a black family, but through the eyes of a black protagonist. This is his story and you see the world through his eyes. That doesn’t happen often.”
The film has been a huge hit, taking $115m so far at the US box office, despite some negative publicity. Much of the controversy concerns the divergence from the facts of the Eugene Allen’s life (there was no rape, no radical son, but he was invited to a state dinner by Nancy Reagan). The (sympathetic) portrayal of Nancy by Jane Fonda has drawn flak, from a Veterans’ group unable to forgive “Hanoi Jane” for her anti-Vietnam campaign. Reagan’s son Michael has also criticised the (largely benign) depiction of his father. “If you knew my father, you’d know he was the last person on Earth you would call a racist,” he wrote.
“Nancy Reagan was very excited to have Jane play the role,” counters Daniels. “She’s seen the movie. Her son and her daughter loved it; all but one, who is a very staunch Republican – that’s the one that always has something to complain about.” President Obama was reportedly moved to tears by the movie, though his endorsement is hardly surprising as the drama concludes with his 2008 election victory.
Ultimately, The Butler is a Zelig-like tale of struggle in which the metaphor wears a tuxe
do. The butler, we learn, must learn to live with two faces, one for his family and friends, and another for public life. He must be present, but unseen.
“You see Cecil with his friends, you see him in a jocular mood, you see him enjoying food with his family,” says Oyelewo. “Then suddenly there’s the public face and the public demeanour – the wallflower. And my character is someone who has lost patience with that way of being, he wants to be true in private and true in public. That’s the clash: toeing the line, versus ‘we’ve had enough’.”
“I remember when Obama became president, I didn’t feel the need to have two faces,” says Daniels. “For so long there was the face that we had for business, and our personal face that we have for family; and for African-Americans to survive in the world there needed to be both. It took me a long time to embrace the fact that I even had two faces. But when Obama became president I became one.”
Daniels was a hands-on director, ordering Winfrey to seek coaching to refresh her acting skills, and urging Whitaker to do less, and trust that his emotions would be transmitted. “It was really remarkable working with Forest,” says James Marsden (who plays JFK), “how measured and calm and specific he was. His nature is very different to Lee’s.”
The director, meanwhile, praises the “zen-like angelic quality” Whitaker brought to the set. “In preparation I had to revisit many of the atrocities that my mother and my grandmother endured,” says Daniels. “I’m 54, so I remember drinking from a ‘colored’ water fountain. You choose to block things out to get on in the world. But when I was doing the research, it was three months of watching things – the beatings, the murders. I came to set the first day angry, Forest saw that anger and he said: ‘Lee, you can’t carry that energy with you, because the minute that you see racism, it becomes real, and if its real, then it eats you alive. You have to rise above it, and act as if it’s not there, even if it’s in your face.’”
“My character comes from a period where, if you didn’t hide your emotions, it could cost you your life,” says Whitaker. “At that time, it meant survival. For myself, I’ve stayed pretty true to what I feel, to what I am, but we’ve had a lot of incidents in the country … Not that long ago, even, near where I was born in Jasper, Texas, someone dragged this guy through the streets. [James Byrd Jr. was murdered by white supremacists in 1998]. Different things go on as we try to evolve as a nation.”
Certainly, the subject matter was familiar to Whitaker (52), who lived in the South Los Angeles area in the 1960s and early 1970s, and was due to be bussed to a school in Compton until his parents told officials that he lived with a cousin, meaning he was sent to a largely-white school. He also has distinct memories of the radical Black Panther movement operating in his neighbourhood.
“I remember not understanding when Dr King was assassinated, not being at school. And the Black Panther party was around the corner from my house. When I would go to school, I saw them every day. They knew my name, they picked me up, invited me to go to a breakfast programme. I also saw when their building was blown up. I walked right by, I looked for them, ’cause these guys were always talking to me.
“The town I was born in (Longview, Texas), in which I spent all my summers with my grandfather, was always divided. There was this side of the river, or the other side of the river. That was the dividing line between race and culture. That happened throughout the movement of my youth. It’s shifting now, but there are remnants of it.”
If the triumphalism of the film’s conclusion seems a little over-stated in the light of the compromises of the Obama’s administration, Whitaker remains optimistic.
“His election brought a lot of hope to people, and it still does. Dr King talked about it. He said a promissory note had been was given – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is what was in the constitution. This promissory note is what we’ve been working towards.
“As a nation, we’re very young, and the amount of movement that’s occurred in this short span of time is unbelievable.
“Barack is one of those steps that’s moving us there. And it’s a great step. We’ve moved a long way – but we’re still trying to reach a true definition of what we said we were going to be. So in that way, we haven’t become what we’ve promised ourselves.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Remember How The Darkness Doubled? Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel Is Like A Brilliant Sequel To Marquee Moon

Chris Forsyth, it’s true, is a little surprised to find himself described as a new artist, after a decade of service with noise band Peeesseye, and a number of collaborations on the fringes of space rock, free jazz and (it says here) intergalactic glossolalia.
But there is a sense of a sudden snapping into focus on his new solo album, Solar Motel. It’s a fierce, exploratory record, which sounds, in a way, like an instrumental sequel to Television’s Marquee Moon. Not incidentally, Forsyth studied guitar with Richard Lloyd of Television when he was living in Brooklyn in the late 1990s.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise,” he says. “I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“Marquee Moon is just in my blood. In the town I grew up in, nobody knew who Television was, so when I stumbled across that when I was 15, 16, a light-bulb went off. Then, studying with Richard automatically makes him/them my biggest influence because he taught me so much. I feel like it’s just something that’s in my DNA. But the exact music wasn’t specifically inspired by it.”
Lloyd, in any case, is not a conventional teacher. “He’s an incredibly brilliant guy – he taught me a lot of fundamental practical things, but he also has a very cosmic approach to music.  So some days we would just learn certain scales or patterns or tricks to get around the neck, and other days he would read poetry and talk to me about the nature of creativity. It’s funny, because Television is referred to as the first punk band in New York, but I think they, and Patti Smith, are actually like the last hippies. There’s definitely a line between that kind of Sixties’questing approach and what they did. They just cut their hair, you know?”
Forsyth’s journey towards Solar Motel was a long, winding journey through the backroads of experimental, improvised music. Peeesseye (a trio with Jaime Fennelly and Fritz Welch) toiled at the coalface of rackety minimalism for a decade, and Forsyth considers their work to be his “first serious musical accomplishment” after a long period “down an experimental rabbit-hole”.
“We always felt like outsiders – we were a little too lyrical for the noise scene and we were a little too freaked out for the rock scene so we didn’t fit anywhere. It was also an anarchic group – nobody told anybody what to do, we improvised a lot, though we also composed pieces. I’m very proud of the records.”
Ultimately, Peeesseye drifted apart geographically, and split when the logistics of living in different cities grew too complicated. “When Brooklyn started to change the various members of the group started leaving New York. First Jamie, then Fritz – he lives in Glasgow now, Jamie lives in Chicago and I moved to Philadelphia. So the band got destabilised.”
Without a band to consider, Forsyth began to concentrate on solo work. “I could really just do exactly what I wanted, so I started going back to roots, playing more lyrically, mostly electric guitar but combining the psychedelic thing with some strong melodic sense.  His luck really changed in 2011, when he was awarded a Pew Fellowship: “It allowed me to not have to bar tend or wait tables or hustle money so much. It allowed me to go deeper into the music.”
The first result of this deeper creative focus was 2012’s Kenzo Deluxe, which can be considered Forsyth’s first true solo album. It was followed quickly by Solar Motel. The music is hard to categorise, though Forsyth is wary of aligning himself with space rock or psychedelia. “I feel like space rock or psychedelic rock is a style that people attach themselves to; I’m trying to make music. It comes out as these extended conversations, or motifs, but the aim is always to have a point, musically.”
For the moment, he has settled, with some reservations, on Cosmic Americana, a label borrowed from a review of his 2011 album Paranoid Cat. “There’s a lot of American roots music that I’m influenced by – blues and country and jazz – although it’s maybe a little less overt. It’s not a stylistic thing to me, more of a musical thing.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise. I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“By the same token, one of my all-time favourite guitarists is Richard Thompson, and he would be the ultimate English guitar player. There’s a meeting point in there somewhere.”
Since the album was recorded, over 18 months ago, Forsyth has assembled the Solar Motel Band, with Paul Sukeena (guitar), Steven Urgo (drums), and Peter Kerlin (bass), and says the music has progressed further. “It turned out a really good chemical reactions. There’s also a lot of spaces on the record that are wide open, or improvised. I always want that instant creativity thing happening. That aspect of it has gone into a whole other realm, and the character of the players is really strong. So it’s snowballed.”
Forsyth has also found time to score an experimental soundtrack to Robert Frank’s infamous Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues. The Forsyth version is called, Never Meant To Change The World (Cocksucker Blues). “I screen a really degraded bootleg DVD of Cocksucker Blues and I erase 95% of the sound from the film. Mostly it’s just dialogue. There’s all those weird hanger-on bits of dialogue which are some of the most interesting parts of the film, so I left some of that in. But basically I reframed the film with my music. I’m a Stones fan, but I’m a huge Robert Frank fan also, and I think aside from being interesting to Stones fans I think it’s a phenomenal film.”
The film was conceived for a Philadelphia art gallery, under the heading The Big Idea.
“I thought, oh, The Rolling Stones, they were once a very dangerous proposition and, God, that kinda failed.”
Solar Motel is on Paradise of Bachelors. www.thechrisforsyth.com